Tile is such an established building material. It dates back more than 25,000 years. That’s a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not stat you don’t even have to pay $14.99 admission to learn.
Tile is the great, great, great Grandfather of shower surround surfaces. It’s a fun, inventive and versatile material. On the other hand, it can be a pain to clean. It can be a pain to install. It can be a drain on your wallet.
It’s because of these downsides of tile new materials (like laminate shower wall panels discussed in this article) are looking to ‘bump tile’ off its bathroom throne (OK – that’s a bad pun – I know!).
If you’re not familiar with laminate wall panels they were invented over 25 years ago in Norway. They’re 3/8” thick. The thickness of most tiles. They’re approximately 2’ x 8’ in size. They’re used in shower, tub and bathroom walls to provide a waterproof, yet stylish surround. They install like laminate flooring. They click and lock together. However, unlike laminate flooring they also are adhered and waterproofed with a hybrid polymer sealant.
In this article we’ll take a look ‘under the hood’ (or in this case under the grout joint or wall panel) and compare the advantages of laminate wall panels vs. a tile shower and vice versa.
At the end there will be a quiz (but don’t sweat it – you won’t be graded!) to see which system you’d like to use for your next bathroom remodeling project.
Advantages of Laminated Bathroom and Shower Wall Panels vs. a Ceramic Tile Shower Surround
Advantage #1 of Laminated Wall Panels – No grout, no grout and did I mention, no ‘real grout joint’ to clean?
You love tile.
However, you HATE, HATE, HATE hard-to-clean grout joints which are joined at the hip with ceramic tiles.
Most laminate wall panels have ‘faux grout’ joints which are 1/16” or 1/8” wide. This faux joint (which is routed into the laminate panels using a CNC router) looks like the real thing, except it’s not the cement-based-pain-in-the-rear like a real grout joint.
In addition, since these panels aren’t molded, the grout joint is not only indented into the panel (for a realistic look), but its color is varied from the tile (or stone) look of the panel. You’ll swear it’s a tile shower, but its not.
Basically, laminate wall panels give you the look of ceramic tile, minus the cleaning and resealing (if you actually ever do reseal your tile shower surround) hassle.
Advantage #2 of Laminated Wall Panels – Quick installation
The idea of a new shower surround sounds lovely.
However, what most despise is the ‘labor pains’ of the installation process. With a tile shower you’ve got to install heavy cement board back panels (or expensive extruded polystyrene boards), trowel on modified thin set, cut tiles, apply them to the wall, float in the grout and clean up. This takes a lot of time. It makes a big MESS!
Laminate wall panels, on the other hand, are simply screwed on to OSB (Oriented Strand Board), sealant is applied to the second panel and they click and lock together. Trim pieces are used at the bottom and the sides. It’s far quicker installation than a tile shower.
You can do a laminate wall panel installation in about 1/6 the time of a traditional tile shower surround (and not make such a mess).
Advantage #3 of Laminated Wall Panels – They ‘travel well’ in houseboats, RV’s, Modular Homes, Converted Sprinter Vans or Tiny Homes
If you’re looking to create a stylish RV, modular home, houseboat or converted sprinter van you know tiles can be a problem. They’re heavy. They don’t like ‘movement.’ Their grout joints don’t ‘play well’ with moisture.
It’s nice to know laminate panels will give you the luxury tile look with the added benefits of being good ‘travelers.’ They eliminate the worries about tiles falling off or grout joints cracking in transit. Also, since they’re lighter (each panel weighs 26 lbs.) they save fuel costs.
Shower panels for modular homes, tiny homes or RV’s don’t need to be ugly anymore!
Advantage #4 of Laminated Wall Panels – You can create a subdued minimalist, or sleek high gloss, look at a price which won’t break the bank
With tile, no matter what you do you need those pesky grout joints between the units. The tile look doesn’t work if you want to create the natural, rough look of concrete for a minimalist vibe, or the sleek glossy (and brighter) appearance of a high-gloss (jointless) wall finish. This is an area laminate has it all over tile.
For the ‘uninterrupted’ look of concrete you can choose cracked cement wall panels. They ooze minimalist, without the exorbitant costs of actual concrete wall, or the potential cracking concerns either.
On the other hand, if you want to ‘brighten up’ your space high-gloss wall panels create a seamless, shiny, light-reflective appearance at a homeowner-friendly cost.
Advantage #5 of Laminated Wall Panels – You won’t get hammered with the ‘hidden costs’ of renting or buying ‘specialty’ tools which will gather dust down the road
Raise your hand if you have a wet saw hanging around the house? Raise your hand if your neighbor stopped over to borrow your tile cutter?
If you answered no to both questions you’d be in the majority.
Tools like wet saws and tile cutters aren’t common everyday stuff. They’re similar to your spouse’s fondue pot or chocolate fountain stored in the ‘never-never-land’ of your storage cabinets or basement which barely see the light of day.
However, specialized tools (which need to be bought or rented) are the costs-not-factored-in of a tile installation many people try to sweep under the rug (‘er tile). The ceramic tiles you ‘got such a great deal on from your local big-box store’ turns into a MUCH more expensive actual cost than you’re going to admit to your spouse or relatives who check the job out later.
What’s nice about laminate wall panels is they can be cut or drilled with common woodworking equipment most DIY’ers have on hand. Holes saws, jig saws and circular saws are used most often to get this job done. I’ll bet you own these tools already.
Advantage #6 of Laminated Wall Panels – You won’t have to worry about ‘springing a leak’
If you’ve had tile showers before, or worse yet a leaking tile shower before, you know how ‘Notorious B.I.G.’ your problems can become if your shower walls or base spring a leak.
You not only have to replace the tiles and/or grout joints, but in most cases, you’re ripping things down to the studs and fixing the ceiling below and/or dealing with damage beyond the bathroom. Leaking showers are huge problems.
With waterproof wall panels your faux grout joints never leak. You get the same look without the worry (and huge expense) of a water problem.
First, you get peace-of-mind. Second, you get a total lower cost of ownership.
Advantage #7 of Laminated Wall Panels – Get the large-format tile look without the installation costs and hassle of big tiles
Large format tile looks are blowing the doors (or should I say walls) off teeny tiny mosaic, or 4” x 4” tiles, installed ‘back-in-the-day’ your existing shower walls went in. This more contemporary larger format look is not only simpler to maintain, but the large pieces make a small bathroom look bigger. And in most bathrooms, you and I desperately want to make it feel bigger (even if we’re living in an altered reality).
The challenge with large format tile is they are heavier, harder and more time-consuming to install. Your costs (unless you’re doing it yourself and consider your labor to ‘free’) will also be higher.
Since faux grout joints are manufactured into the laminate panels, your installation time is not affected by the size (big or small) of the joint. So, you get an updated look without any extra installation costs.
Advantage #8 of Laminated Wall Panels – Your tile contractor won’t resemble ‘Eldon the Painter’ from an old episode of Murphy Brown
Even if you love your contractor, let’s face it, you’re dying to have them out of the house and get on with your ‘normal life’ (whatever that is) ASAP.
Contractors in your home are ‘hired intruders.’ They mess up your routine. When your house is ‘under construction’ it’s never glorious. The sooner you get them out, the better.
This is one powerful reason to use a laminate system. A tile job which can take 3 to 5 days can be done with laminate panels in a day. Any time you shave time off a bath remodel is a beautiful ‘thang!”
Advantages of a Ceramic Tile Shower Surround vs. Laminate Wall Panels
Advantage #1 of Ceramic Tile Shower Surrounds – You want ultra-fancy, intricate patterns, let your imagination soar with tile!
Ceramic tile designs are only limited by your imagination (or that of your bathroom designer).
Perhaps you want the complexity of a herringbone pattern or the classic look of subway tile. Maybe you want to add a glass tile row with an iridescent sheen. All these unique designs are at your disposal with a tile shower surround.
Laminate wall panels, on the other hand, are a vertically constructed system of 2’ x 8’ panels (with 1’ x 8’ accent panels). While you can get versatility in the grout joint designs and stone sizes, you can’t do herringbone or subway tile patterns. Sure, you can get cool looks with laminate, but if ‘fancy-shmancy’ is your thing – you can do it all with tile.
Advantage #2 of Ceramic Tile Surrounds – Curved is cool…and possible
There is something fascinating and graceful about curved walls. Whether it’s the serpentine brick walls at the University of Virginia or a gently curved tile shower wall, grace and beauty flow from their design.
With ceramic tiles you can use mosaic wall tiles and make these curves a reality. You may be wondering won’t a curved wall be expensive? And the answer is a big-time, yes! But it’s cool as all get out.
Since the laminate panels are a high-pressure laminate over a 3/8” thick marine-grade plywood (which doesn’t bend), curved walls are not possible.
Advantage #3 of Ceramic tile surrounds – Your wall designs can ‘spill onto the shower pan and even into the room.’
With ceramic tiles your design can seamlessly flow from the walls to the shower pan and even ‘spill out’ into the bathroom floor. You’ll create a sense of movement not possible with any other materials. A show-stopping design can be yours.
Laminate panels, on the other hand, are only used as a vertical wall. There are not matching patterns available in the shower pan or laminate flooring (or at least not yet).
Advantage #4 of Ceramic Tile Surrounds – You can install borders horizontally or vertically
Borders can add interest to any design. The most common borders are placed horizontally in bathroom designs. With ceramic or glass tiles, horizontal and/or vertical borders are not a problem.
On the other hand, with laminate panels, accent borders can only be designed vertically in predetermined 1’ and 2’ widths.
Advantage #5 of Ceramic Tile Surrounds – You can enjoy a sauna or steam room
Who wouldn’t love a steam room or sauna after a stressful day at work? Sweat away all (or at least most of) the craziness which is your day-job.
Given the high temperatures and humidity of these rooms there are (unfortunately) precious-few materials which are able to withstand the heat. Ceramic tile (with waterproof backer boards and the right grout) can make the grade.
At this stage, laminate panels are not approved for steam rooms or saunas.
At the beginning of this article I warned you there would be a quiz at the end. So, here’s your ‘non-pop’ quiz questions (and yes, I’ll grade them on whatever curve you’d like):
Question #1) For your money what’s the better buy, laminate wall panels or ceramic tile?
Question #2) Which product would you use, if money was no object (OK – I know this isn’t likely the reality of your world, but it’s fun to ask)?
Question #3) What’s the biggest pain in your shower you’d like to fix? Which product will do the best job fixing those problems?
I hope this article helped you see the pros and cons of laminate vs. ceramic tile showers. While they’re both good systems, it’s smart for you to choose based on what’s most important to you in the design, maintenance and looks of your new shower.
If you have any questions me (and my team) would love to help. Please call or click on the links below.
How can I (or a member of my team) help you?
Do you have any additional questions?
We’d love to help. Call us at 877-668-5888 (for nationwide wholesale supply or a referral to a local installing dealer of laminated wall panels). For a local project call 216-658-1280 in Cleveland or 614-252-3242 in Columbus.
If you’re a remodeler or builder and want practical advice on remodeling products, industry trends, marketing and sales tips to grow your business (and cut day to day hassles), start reading my newest blog – Innovate Builders Blog. It’s packed with ideas you can use now. Click here to Sign Up for the Innovate Builders Blog.
If you’re in the building business, click here if you’d like to learn how to become a shower wall panel dealer or call and ask for Mike at 877-467-7488.
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